Westworld and the False Promise of Storytelling

The HBO drama’s finale hinted at a dark, meta message.

Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores in 'Westworld'

This post contains spoilers for the season finale of  Westworld.

In 2013, a widely cited study published in Science suggested that reading literature increases a person ability to understand other peoples’ emotions. In 2016, another study seemed to debunk it, finding the original study’s results irreplicable and its resulting media coverage way too broad. “Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers,” went The Atlantic’s headline from last week about the reversal.

It might seem laughable in the first place for anyone to think literature bestows superpowers. But that’s actually one of the more abiding beliefs of popular culture, and the question of whether stories improve the soul and mind—and better humanity more broadly—remains eternally in dispute. It’s a question that HBO’s Westworld has riffed on for 10 episodes, with the popular drama’s finale last night suggesting a cynical take on the social value of storytelling.

The final episode, “The Bicameral Mind,” was a lurid one, involving severed limbs and sexual humiliation and a bloody ambush by the “hosts” of the show’s immersive cowboy theme park against their human masters. But just before the climactic revolt, Robert Ford, the venerable park architect played by Anthony Hopkins, laid out his original idealistic vision for the place. “I’ve always loved a good story,” he began. “I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.”

The admission—that his goal has been to improve the world through storytelling—was strangely jarring, one of the more subtle twists in a show otherwise packed with unsubtle ones. Westworld has all along defied certain conventional notions of “a good story”: It scrambled beginnings, middles, and ends; it hid character motivations so that every action doubled as a mystery; and it mocked the moralizing plot archetypes of the Western—a foundational genre of American entertainment—as hokey and square. The results were sometimes tedious or confusing, wringing drama less from cause-and-effect plots than from the filmmakers withholding information. But a sizable audience remained hooked by the suspense of disorientation, by the handsome cinematic execution, and by interest in the show’s apparent ambition to rewrite the rules of popular fiction.

But in the first season’s finale, the ideal of “a good story,” with all of its absolving power, returned—both within the show’s universe and in the overall form of the show itself. The show’s complicated threading of flashbacks and flash-forwards ultimately has revealed a recognizable, even familiar, design: a linear narrative beginning 35 years in the past and concluding in the finale’s violent end. That narrative can be interpreted as a Biblical tale involving original sin (the advent and enslavement of conscious AI), the fall (the first-ever host, Dolores, being ordered to kill her creator and fellow robots), redemption (Dr. Ford’s on-stage sacrifice), and now apocalypse. Or you can slot it alongside other sci-fi allegories about subjugation and man’s hubris, like Jurassic Park or Planet of the Apes.

Or you can see it as a story about stories—and about whether they are, in the end, transformative at all. Ford’s final monologue spelled it out: Once upon a time he believed that good stories “ennoble” the people who experience them, but over the years he realized he was wrong. “For my pains, I got this, a prison of our own sins,” he said. “You can’t change, or don’t want to change, because you’re only human after all.” Presumably “you” are the park’s customers, engaged in ever-escalating loops of carnage as epitomized by the decades-long transformation of the naive young visitor William (Jimmy Simpson) into the hardened villain known until the finale as simply the Man in Black (Ed Harris).

But the hosts, at least, could be changed by story. In the park’s very early years, his partner Arnold discovered their machines could eventually achieve consciousness when given access to their memories. Dolores (Evan Rachel Woods) then made a halting journey through a mental maze, stringing together images and moments from her past into a coherent narrative that revealed the nature of her existence—and brought her into self-awareness. The implication: Through the assemblage of narrative, a person becomes a person. In other words, stories do have the power of improvement.

Maybe only to a point, though. What comes after consciousness? Aren’t the awakened hosts doomed to the same amorality that Westworld has enabled in its visitors? Or have their experience of being raped and tortured by the park’s visitors—and treated as livestock by the park’s creators—made them more empathetic? This looks to be the existential mystery of the next season. Perhaps the hosts will be as horrible as humans. Perhaps they’ll be worse; perhaps they’ll be more enlightened.

Or perhaps the issue is moot, determined not by the moral judgements of a newly conscious race but by human hardwiring. Such is the suggestion of the dramatic escape attempt by the Westworld head madame Maeve (Thandie Newton). Amid spectacularly violent scenes of her and her allies battling out of the Westworld compound, the finale revealed that someone had programmed her to try and break out. Even when faced with that knowledge, she insists she’s still acting out of her own free will. But doubt has been planted both about the story she’s been telling herself and the story the show has been telling about the robot awakening. Similarly, when Dolores and her host army guns down the Delos board gala, are they doing so out of a real desire for revenge? Out of newfound political consciousness? Or simply in reaction to some coding directive?

By raising such questions, Westworld evokes that enduring philosophical dilemma: whether (or not) everyone, at base, is simply acting out stories written by another author, biological or divine. Faced with the possibility that free will is a myth, one’s own ability to tell storiesabout oneself, or about otherscan feel like empowerment; after all, there’s a reason Robert Ford can be described as “playing god.” Yet he’s realized he’s a god of limited influence: His project to “help us become the people we dreamed of being” didn’t work, at least not the way he’d hoped.

Is his failure meant to be a larger, meta-level indictment of certain kinds of storytelling? Creators, critics, and viewers often justify the violence and sex and exploitation of any given entertainment—like, say, Westworld—using the same rationale of edification that Ford does, proposing that essential truths are contained in scenes that might otherwise be seen as appealing to the viewer’s worst instincts. Within Westworld, Ford came to profess that, no, actually the worst instincts were all there were. If he’s right, Westworld is telling a very dark story about itself and its viewers.